Last spring, Jenn Wasner was faced with a now-familiar dilemma: what to do with all this newfound free time. For perpetually touring artists like Wasner, the sleepy days of 2020 quarantine were likely even more of an adjustment. And like many of those grounded musicians, Wasner used the abundance of solitude as an excuse to look inward.
She got to writing, and those balmy weeks between March and June of last year resulted in Head of Roses, Wasner’s lush second album under her Flock of Dimes solo alias. A habitual collaborator, the Baltimore-born musician is probably known to most as one-half of experimental indie-pop group Wye Oak, who released their most recent stunner The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs in 2018 on Merge Records, and as a touring member of Bon Iver. On Head of Roses, Wasner entrusts another stalwart indie label (Sub Pop) with her complex-yet-approachable rock stylings and assembles a different group of collaborators, but she sounds more confident than ever in her own voice.
She gathered a small group of creators, including co-producer Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits, to record the album in North Carolina, where she also lives. The final product is a flawlessly produced, clean-cut rock record that seemingly exposes its crags and craters with each additional listen. At first pass, Head of Roses sounds showy on the front end and more relaxed in the second half. But, with more time spent swimming around in these songs, a sleek throughline emerges, connecting the quieter moments to all the delightful bumps and edges, and creating an album that’s equal parts intricate, exploratory pop and thoughtful, experimental indie folk.
In Wye Oak songs, Wasner’s voice is often the restless, driving force—a charged alto you couldn’t ignore if you tried. On Head of Roses, her vocals are just as powerful, but she isn’t afraid to let her voice take a backseat to instrumentation and overall mood. Lyrics play a role, but she generally seems to forgo narrative for feeling—and it’s a totally worthwhile trade. On groovy single “Two,” Wasner weaves a tale of imposter syndrome with a maximalist soundscape of beeps, boops, clicks and clacks. She casually drops one of the album’s many bites of wisdom (“We’re all just wearing bodies like a costume till we die”) before peeling into the more somber “Hard Way,” a glittering recap of the breakup that inspired much of this record.
Album standout “Price of Blue” is also a recollection of heartbreak “about the invisible mark that another person can leave on your body, heart and mind long after their absence,” according to Wasner. Whether intentional or not, the opening bars of “Price of Blue” are eerily reminiscent of those on Beyoncé’s “Formation” from Lemonade, an album that’s also largely about failed connection and disjointed communication. “Price of Blue” finds Wasner at the very end of the road, left with no choice but to snuff out the remaining light of a relationship: “I’m suffocating the spark / Of divine you made in me,” she sings.
There’s a lot of wreckage to sort through, but Wasner does brush with the “roses’’ eventually. On the lovely, Waxahatchee-esque folk tune “Awake For The Sunrise,” Wasner finds meaning in a weary morning that came too soon. “Hope is still keeping my head above water,” she sings, before later fully surrendering to the pain and regret of a restless night: “I’d rather feel the full wrath of destruction / than remember the things I’ve done.”
The title track and album closer is a slow, breathtaking piano ballad that sounds like Carole King on half-speed. Wasner has you in her grip from the scratchy layered vocals and slippery synths on album opener “Heads” all the way to the melancholy, dwindling notes of “Head of Roses.” In another artist’s hands, the change in pace might feel unnatural. But with Wasner as our guide, Head of Roses feels like an emotional journey where every new feeling, moment of rest and sonic surprise is hard-won.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.